How do you pass on book learning if you don’t have any
books? You write notes on the blackboard, or you dictate
lessons. Your students write down what they can, then go
away to study their notes, accurate or not. That’s how
most students learn in Uganda. They come from villages where the
schools are overcrowded and underfunded, and teachers are lucky if
they have one textbook for every ten children.
To make things more difficult, all education beyond the most elementary
level is done in English, a foreign language to Ugandans, and one
that in rural areas is rarely heard outside the classroom. It is hardly surprising that only a minority of rural children gets into secondary school,
and only a small part of that group goes on to higher education. Yet
young rural Ugandans and their teachers alike yearn for access to the
world outside their villages and, given the opportunity, will work hard to
acquire the necessary knowledge and language proficiency to do so.
Almost ten years ago, the director of a secondary school near the village
of Kitengesa, in southern Uganda, told me that his dream was to
have a community library. I responded by supplying a box of books, and
the Kitengesa Community Library was born. Later, thanks to the One
Per Cent for Development Fund (underwritten and run by employees of
the United Nations), we were
able to put up a building and
later equip it with solar panels so
the library can be open at night,
a dramatic symbol of the power
of reading. Friends in the United States provided the money to buy
books and newspapers, and to pay two librarians. They also pay school
fees for seven students who, as “library scholars,” help run the library
and, in the process, learn important skills.
In much of the world, libraries are taken for granted, but their appearance
in up-country African villages only began during the past decade. In
fact, it has only been since the 1980s that secondary schools have been
created in most rural areas. (Before that, anyone wanting to continue
school at that level had to go to one of the major towns.) But even today, those
rural schools lack the kind of support outside of the classroom that lets
students expand their knowledge of the world beyond their villages.
A Spirit of Studying
Most of the Kitengesa library’s users are secondary school students, and
they are eloquent about how it has helped their education and given them a measure of independence: "When
teachers don't cover the whole syllabus,
you can find a book and read it," one student
told me. "You can use the library for
reference and check whether what the
teachers have told you is true or false,"
another added. As a result, one young
woman claimed, "the library has put us in
a spirit of studying."
The success of the Kitengesa library
is part of a heartening trend in Uganda.
There are now several village libraries in
the country, founded either by local people
or by interested foreigners working
with local colleagues. The libraries have
different collections and reach out to
their communities in different ways, but
the same mission unites them: to
enhance education in Uganda by developing
a reading culture.
In August 2007, a national organization,
the Uganda Community Libraries Association, was launched to provide training for
librarians and distribute small grants. So
far, eighteen institutions have joined
UgCLA, a network through which library
managers can exchange best practices and
foreign organizations can gain access to
help village community libraries.
UgCLA is associated with an even
wider network through Friends of African
Village Libraries (FAVL), a registered not-for-profit organization in the United
States that began its work in 2002 by setting
up libraries in Burkina Faso. In 2006,
it developed an East African branch that
supports UgCLA and the Kitengesa
library, as well as libraries in Tanzania.
FAVL is inspired by the vision that libraries
in villages throughout Africa will enable
rural people to take charge of their own
education and will provide a vital infrastructure
for educational and developmental
To help develop relationships
between individual libraries in Uganda
and with other communities internationally,
the Ugandan libraries, through
UgCLA, can offer placements for volunteers
and information about rural life in
Africa, while the linked foreign communities
can help with funding, materials,
Kate Parry is a professor in the English
department at Hunter College, City University of New York, and chairperson of the Uganda Community Libraries Association.